Racial disparities in arrest rates for drugs are a well-documented (and lived) reality. For decades, drug policy has contributed to skyrocketing incarceration rates among minority populations.
That marijuana legalization is promoted as a victory for racial justice is ironic at best. Just look at marijuana’s counterparts, the alcohol and tobacco industries. It is an unjustified reality in Black communities that a child cannot take a walk without passing a liquor store on every corner. And they cannot even see inside other convenience stores because of the cigarette and alcohol advertisements plastered on the windows. Liquor stores in poorer, non-White neighborhoods far outnumber those in richer, White counterparts.
Pot is no different. Already the marijuana industry—comprised almost entirely of White men—is copying the successful playbook of the alcohol industry. In Denver, the epicenter of legalized weed, lower-income, Brown and Black neighborhoods are already experiencing this. In one minority neighborhood, there is one pot business for every 47 residents.
The increased availability of marijuana in these neighborhoods matters, because while some will argue that marijuana isn’t harmful, the science says otherwise. Marijuana users are three times more likely to become addicted to heroin than non-users, and frequent pot use by kids is correlated with higher possibilities of welfare dependency and permanent IQ loss.
Contrary to the argument that marijuana legalization will promote criminal justice, we’ve seen that legalization has not produced reductions in incarceration. After years of decline, incarceration rates in Colorado have risen sharply and are projected to continue to rise following legalization with no discernible change in prison demographics. While the actual number of arrests for marijuana are down, the racial disparity in arrests for pot have stayed the same or increased slightly in legalized states.
And in the two years after Colorado legalized marijuana, the number of Hispanic and Black kids arrested for marijuana-related offenses rose 29 and 58 percent, respectively. In the same period, the number of White kids being arrested for identical crimes dropped eight percent. All of this is especially alarming given that adolescents who smoke marijuana once a week are almost six times more likely than nonsmokers to drop out of school and over three times less likely to enter college.
Where is the social justice in that? And more tellingly, where are the protests by (mostly White) legalization activists now? Their silence is deafening. Now that they’ve pocketed their cash, they seem undisturbed by what happens in non-White communities.
Ultimately, legalization only exacerbates social justice issues by prompting well-meaning citizens to think that they have “done something” for civil rights by voting for pot, instead of actually engaging in the hard work that promotes institutional change. (Remember why Eric Garner was killed? It was over cigarettes – a legal drug.)
To continue to legalize and commercialize marijuana is to continue to allow an addictive industry to profit off minorities and the marginalized. It’s time for us to wake up and realize that legalizing marijuana only reinforces the pillars of racial inequality in America.
William Jones is a third generation Washingtonian working toward a Master’s of Public Policy at The George Washington University. He was the organizer for the “Two is Enough” campaign opposing marijuana legalization in Washington, D.C., and has been a recipient of scholarships and awards for leadership and societal change.